Somewhere around St. Petersburg and W. Somerset Maugham, it became clear that The Dead Ladies Project isn’t to be shoehorned into any of the recognisable classifications that exist for contemporary memoirs. Superficially, The Dead Ladies Project is a meandering meditation about a Grand Journey wandering in the landscape of literary, some by association, women (and a few men) who are either unappreciated or little known. Each chapter is built around an excursion and mines the life of Crispin’s ‘dead ladies,’ some that she admires unreservedly, like Claude Cahun, and others, like Rebecca West and Jean Rhys, with whom she lovingly dissents.
Each of the chapters is beautifully executed. On each of three readings I picked a different favourite journey, though I suspect the Nora Barnacle chapter is the one will bewitch me for longest. Or the Maugham. Or the Rebecca West.
But Crispin is more unique among contemporary travel writers and memoirists for her courage in using The Dead Ladies Project as a backdrop to engage with the core existential questions of how to live in a sociopolitical (perhaps I should say biopolitical) system that subsumes all sexual, sensual and social experience. Crispin wrestles with two familiar extremes, that of enjoying the freedom of libidinal hedonism, contrasted with withdrawal into monadic seclusion. What is distinctive to Crispin in The Dead Ladies Project, compared to a writer like Houellebecq that travels down similar roads, is that despite the despair and dark humour, there is optimism. How rare to come across an imagination fresh and rich enough to shift our vision, even by a small degree, on the society that is coming into view.